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Teachers’ beliefs about issues in the implementation of a student-centered learning environment

Abstract Teachers' implementation of technology-enhanced student-centered learning environments (SCLEs) will be affected by their beliefs about effective practices. In order for student-centered programs to be used as intended, designers must be
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  Teachers ’ Beliefs about Issues in theImplementation of aStudent-Centered Learning Environment Susan PedersenMin Liu Teachers ’ implementation of technology-enhanced student-centered learning environments (SCLEs) will beaffected by their beliefs about effective practices. In order for student-centered  programs to be used as intended, designersmust be aware of the key issues that will shapetheir implementation and the beliefs teachershold about these issues. This case studyexamined 15 teachers ’ beliefs about student-centered learning as they implemented  Alien Rescue, a computer-based program for middle school science that was designed tocreate a SCLE in the classroom.Considerations for the design of similar  programs are offered. Concurrent interest in learning guided by aconstructivist perspective and advances in com-puter technology have led to a renewed interestin student-centered learning (Land & Hannafin,2000). Student-centered learning requires stu-dents to set their own goals for learning, anddetermine resources and activities that will helpthem meet those goals (Jonassen, 2000). Becausestudents pursue their own goals, all of their ac-tivities are meaningful to them.A variety of approaches fit beneath theumbrella of student-centered learning, includ-ing case-based learning, goal-based scenarios,learning by design, project-based learning, andproblem-based learning. Common to these dif-ferent approaches is a central question (Jonassen,1999) that creates a need for certain knowledgeand activities. This question may be stated orimplied, and can take a variety of forms, includ-ing a problem, an issue, a case, or a project.Though student-centered learning includes ap-proaches in which this question can be deter-mined by the student (Hannafin, Land, & Oliver,1999), a common characteristic of the ap-proaches listed above is that students arepresented with a situation or activity whichframes this central question, thereby givinglearners a common goal. The central question isusually at least somewhat ill structured, mean-ing that the goals and constraints of the questionare not clearly stated, there may be multiple jus-tifiable responses, responses may incorporatetradeoffs or drawbacks, it is not obvious whatconcepts or actions are relevant to the develop-ment of a response, and learners must make and justify decisions (Jonassen, 1997). Work begins ETR&D, Vol. 51, No. 2, 2003, pp. 57  –  76 ISSN 1042  –  1629 57  with the presentation of this central question,and learning is the result of student efforts todevelop a response to that question. As with thequestion, the response can take a variety of forms, such as a solution, an opinion, a decision,a plan of action, a design, or other product,depending on the nature of the central question.Student-centered approaches are oftendefined by contrasting them with traditional in-structional approaches characterized by greaterteacher direction (e.g., Cuban, 1983; Hannafin etal., 1999). Key differences between the two ap-proaches include goals, roles, motivationalorientations, assessments, and student interac-tions, each of which is discussed in the followingparagraphs. The goal of student activity. In teacher-directedinstruction, students work to meet the objectivesset by the teacher. In contrast, in student-centered learning, students work to provide aresponse to a central question. Since studentsmust sort out for themselves what they need todo and know in order to develop this response,student-centered approaches are more likely topromote student ownership over their processand learning than do teacher-directed ap-proaches. The role of the teacher. In teacher-directed in-struction, the teacher sets learning objectives,and then plans a set of activities designed to helplearners meet those objectives. Because learnersare not assumed to be able to determine aprocess to meet these objectives, it is the respon-sibility of the teacher to guide or direct studentsthrough a step-by-step process and to make surethat any difficulties they encounter during thisprocess are resolved. In student-centered learn-ing, the teacher presents the central question(issue, case, problem), and then works as afacilitator as students determine the nature of the response they will develop, and then formu-late and carry out a process to develop thatresponse. Teachers help students to work through the difficulties they encounter by ques-tioning them and helping them to identify alter-native paths or resources, but they do notresolve these difficulties for the students. Students ’ motivational orientation. Teacher-directed approaches often depend, at least inpart, on extrinsic motivators, such as grades,degrees, or other rewards, to motivate students ’ efforts to learn. In student-centered approaches,teachers attempt to present a question that is in-teresting enough to motivate students to takeownership of the process of developing aresponse. As a result, students ’ actions aredriven by the goals they have set for themselvesrather than external rewards promised by ateacher or institution.  Assessment. Both the purpose and methods of assessment differ for teacher-directed instruc-tion and student-centered learning. In teacher-directed instruction, teachers use assessments todetermine grades, which in turn are used tomotivate students and provide parents with in-formation about their children ’ s progress (Kohn,1994). Assessment is often based on objectivetests, which, Shepard (2000) pointed out, is con-sistent with a model of education based on a so-cial efficiency curriculum and behavioristtheory, but which is at odds with the principlesof constructivism that currently guide efforts todevelop student-centered learning activities.Shepard instead recommended the use of open-ended assessment techniques that are designedto involve students in examining their ownlearning, focusing their attention on their learn-ing needs and changing understanding ratherthan on a grade. Student Interaction. The success of the coopera-tive learning movement (National Center forEducational Statistics, 1999) has resulted in anincrease in the amount of interaction betweenstudents during teacher-directed instruction.This interaction, however, is frequently underteacher control, with teachers determininggroup membership, the nature of the interac-tions between the members, and even the roleeach member of the group plays. Teachers inter-vene in the group process when there are dif-ficulties, and hold the group accountable forindividual learning. Bruffee (1995) argued thatthe structure and vigilance teachers provideduring cooperative learning tends to underminestudents ’ control over their own process. In-stead, student-centered approaches, which alsoassume a great deal of student interaction, are 58 ETR&D, Vol. 51, No. 2  more in keeping with collaborative learning than cooperative learning. Collaborative learning em-phasizes students ’ self-governance of their inter-actions, allowing them to make decisions aboutwith whom they work, and how. As studentsnegotiate their relationships with each other,they must articulate their ideas, and engage in adisciplined social process of inquiry (Bruffee);these activities are in keeping with constructivistprinciples and the goals of student-centeredlearning. Technology-EnhancedStudent-Centered LearningEnvironments (SCLEs) The design and development of student-centered activities have largely been left to theclassroom teacher in the past, but the new focuson constructivism has led researchers in the fieldto exploit the emerging affordances of com-puters in order to develop programs designed tobe student centered. Programs such as Explor-ing the Nardoo (Hedberg, 1997), Decision Point(Brush & Saye, 2000), and Rescuing Rocky(Barab, Hay & Duffy, 2000) make use of thecapabilities of technology to promote a varietyof activities typical of student-centered learning,such as experimentation, research, design, andsolution development. Such activities are alsobecoming part of commercially developedsoftware, such as the Great Ocean Rescue (TomSnyder Productions). Though programs such asthese can vary widely in their structure and in-tended use, they generally provide several of thecomponents Jonassen (2000) suggested arenecessary in SCLEs: • A problem space, in which the central ques-tion that provides the focus of learners ’ work is presented within a context that constrainsit and makes it meaningful; • Related cases, which provide learners withdescriptions of experiences they have not hadthemselves that they can draw on to reflecton the issue or problem presented; • Information resources, which providelearners with access to the information theyneed as they work within the SCLE; • Cognitive tools, which scaffold learners asthey perform tasks within the SCLE; and, • Collaboration tools, which support learnersin constructing socially shared information.Given the differences between student-centered learning and teacher-directed instruc-tion, the implementation of these newtechnology-enhanced SCLEs will require thatmost teachers make substantial changes in theirclassroom practices if these programs are to beused in accordance with the designers ’ inten-tions. However, both the research on teacherresistance to pedagogical change (Richardson,1990) and the history of progressive educationalreform efforts suggest that such changes may bedifficult to implement. Cuban (1983) noted that,though interest in student-centered learningspanned much of the 20th century, it largelyfailed to take root in schools. He found “ a seem-ingly stubborn continuity in teacher-centered in-struction despite intense reform efforts to moveclassroom practices toward instruction that wasmore learner centered ” (p. 160), and speculatedthat school and classroom organizational struc-tures as well as teachers ’ own experiences as stu-dents create conditions that perpetuatetraditional teacher-directed instruction (Cuban,1982). More recently, Windschitl (2002) con-cluded that efforts to implement constructivistpractices in schools are met with conceptual,pedagogical, cultural, and political challengesthat make the transformation from teacher-directed instruction to student-centered learningpractices difficult. Can technology help? Han-nafin and Land (2000) argued that the impend-ing ubiquity of powerful technologies makes thetransition to student-centered learning in-evitable, but the difficulties noted by Cuban andWindschitl may in fact be exacerbated by tech-nology. Implementation of technology-en-hanced student-centered programs requires thatteachers integrate technology into their classesas they embrace pedagogical approaches thatmay be unfamiliar to them. The resistance topedagogical change taken together with the bar-riers to technology integration (Ertmer, 1999)suggests that the double-barreled innovationthat technology-enhanced SCLEs represent mayprove intimidating for teachers. TEACHERS ’ BELIEFS ABOUT ISSUES IN IMPLEMENTING AN SCLE 59  Teachers ’ Beliefs When confronted by novel situations in whichthey lack knowledge structures and cognitivestrategies, people fall back on their beliefs toguide the decisions they make (Pajares, 1992).This may be especially true in teaching, whichNespor (1987) described as an entangleddomain because of the numerous situationsteachers encounter which have overlapping butnot completely analogous characteristics withother situations, thereby frequently requiringteachers to make decisions in the absence of cer-tainty about outcomes. For this reason, re-searchers have argued that a greaterunderstanding of teachers ’ beliefs is essential tothe improvement of educational practices (Fang,1996; Lumpe, Haney, & Czerniak, 1998; Tobin,Tippins, & Gallard, 1994).People hold beliefs about everything. Inrecent years there have been numerous efforts toorganize beliefs into types, and examine theirimpact. This has led to lines of research on suchtopics as epistemological beliefs, or beliefs aboutthe nature of knowledge (Schommer, Calvert,Gariglietti, & Bajaj, 1997); context beliefs, orbeliefs about the responses of the people andother factors in an environment to a particulargoal (Lumpe, Haney, & Czerniak, 2000); self-ef-ficacy, or beliefs about one ’ s capability to ac-complish a certain level of performance(Bandura, 1986), and beliefs about the nature of science (Brickhouse, 1990), just to name a few. Ithas also led to efforts to structure the study of beliefs. For example, Rokeach (1968) posited thatclusters of beliefs about particular entities andsituations form attitudes and values, and thatbeliefs, attitudes, and values together comprisean individual ’ s belief system. For educational re-search, this new interest in teachers ’ beliefs rep-resents a shift away from the almost exclusivefocus on teachers ’ observable behaviors andtheir correlation with student outcomes, whichcharacterized earlier research on teacher effec-tiveness (Fang, 1996).The study of teachers ’ beliefs is complicatedby two difficulties within the field of educationalpsychology. First, beliefs often masquerade as avariety of other constructs, including attitudes,values, judgments, opinions, perceptions, con-ceptions, personal theories, and perspectives.Second, researchers have offered several defini-tions through the years, often based on theirown agendas (Eisenhart, Shrum, Harding, &Cuthbert, 1988), but the field of educationalpsychology has yet to reach a consensus aboutwhat the term beliefs encompasses. The widevariety of overlapping but not perfectlysynonymous terms, combined with the range of definitions that have emerged from the litera-ture, led Pajares (1992) to characterize beliefs asa “ messy construct, ” one in need of a commonlyheld definition that can be operationalized andstudied more systematically. Yet, despite theseambiguities, the study of the educational beliefsof teachers has been strongly advocated for thesimple but powerful reason that teachers ’ beliefsguide the decisions they make and the actionsthey take in the classroom, which in turn havean impact on students.Teachers implementing a technology-en-hanced student-centered program are likely torely on the educational beliefs they havedeveloped during their experiences both as stu-dent and as teacher to navigate the process.These beliefs will shape the way in which a pro-gram is implemented, and ultimately, studentoutcomes. Designers who assume that teacherswill conform to guidelines published in ateacher ’ s manual, or alter their practice to fit thetheoretical underpinnings that guided thedesign of an educational program, may findthemselves seriously mistaken. For example,Guskey (1986) found evidence that in the ab-sence of commitment to an instructional innova-tion, teachers often altered the practice to thepoint that it was no longer effective. Eventeachers who are aware of the designers ’ inten-tions may disregard them if they are at oddswith their own beliefs. Nespor (1987) arguedthat people ’ s beliefs are far more influential thantheir knowledge in determining how they defineproblems, and that beliefs are much betterpredictors of their behavior. Therefore, the effec-tive design of student-centered programs willneed to take into account teachers ’ beliefs aboutstudent-centered learning, and how these beliefsare likely to shape their implementation of programs that are designed to be studentcentered. 60 ETR&D, Vol. 51, No. 2  For the purposes of the study reported here,we used a broad definition that, we believe,would be commonly acceptable:  Beliefs are men-tal constructions based on evaluation and judg-ment that are used to interpret experiences andguide behavior. Purposes of the Study The purposes of this study were to identify keyissues in the implementation of a computer-based program designed to support student-centered learning and to examine teachers ’ beliefs about those issues. These issues aredefined as topics that teachers considered asthey used a technology-enhanced student-centered program with their classes, areas of concern that teachers said would affect whetheror how they would implement the program infuture years, or if there were possible barriers tothe use of the activity or the use of student-centered practices with the activity. The findingscan help designers recognize some of the factorsthat can affect how teachers implement student-centered programs, which can inform the designof both these programs and professionaldevelopment workshops that focus on student-centered practices. The research questions thatguided this study were: • What issues do teachers face when im-plementing a program that is designed to bestudent-centered? • What beliefs do teachers hold about these is-sues? METHOD This paper reports a case study of teachers whoimplemented Alien Rescue, a computer-basedprogram designed to support student-centeredlearning. The authors of this qualitative studywere members of the design team for Alien Res-cue. We have used Alien Rescue with middleschool students for four years, conducting bothformative evaluation and research with it, butprior to the study reported here, we had eitherperformed the teacher ’ s role ourselves orprovided continuous guidance and assistance toclassroom teachers during the pilot-testing of the program. This study examines the first yearin which Alien Rescue was implemented byteachers themselves on a large scale. Participants Fifteen middle school science teachers par-ticipated in the study; 9 of the 15 participated inindividual interviews; 7 of these and 6 addition-al teachers participated in the two focus groups.The number of years of teaching experience of these teachers ranged from 1 to 25. Most of theteachers who participated in this study had stu-dents with special needs in at least one of theirclasses. These students were in special classesfor part of the day, including resource, contentmastery, and classes for the emotionally dis-turbed, but were mainstreamed for science.Thirteen teachers had attended a trainingworkshop on Alien Rescue before using it withtheir classes. The remainder had not. During thisworkshop, teachers used Alien Rescue the waytheir students would use it, while the workshopleader modeled tasks a teacher is expected toperform during the program. Teachers dis-cussed specific pedagogical techniques thatcould be used to support student learning. Boththe workshop and the teacher ’ s manual for theprogram provided suggestions for whatteachers should do in their role as a facilitator,and specific techniques they could use at variouspoints in the program to support cognition,reflection, and collaboration. Materials Alien Rescue presents students with a complexproblem to solve. Students, working as scientistsaboard a space station, are tasked with findingnew homes on worlds in our solar system foreach of six extraterrestrial species aboard aspaceship in orbit around Earth. These speciessrcinated in a distant solar system that wasdestroyed, and after sustaining damage to theirship, entered a state of suspended animationwhere they must stay until they arrive on theirnew homes. Students must learn about the TEACHERS ’ BELIEFS ABOUT ISSUES IN IMPLEMENTING AN SCLE 61
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